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Sunday, May 29, 2011

First Love (Revelation 2.1-7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
May 29, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude: "Wondrous Love" (Wyrtzen)
Hymn of Praise: "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (BEECHER)
The Word in Music: "I'm Putting on the Love of the Lord" (Schreiner)
Hymn of Response: "More Love to Thee" (MORE LOVE TO THEE)
Offering of Music: "Be Thou My Vision" (Miller)
Song of Sending: "Light the Fire" (Doerksen)
Postlude: "O Love, How Deep" (Manz)

Fast Forward/First Love
Text: Revelation 2:1-7; Matthew 24:11-14; Ephesians 4:1-3

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Normally, I recommend the audio version over the written version, as the written version is an early draft.  In this case, I think I prefer the written version... just in case you are wondering.  :)

Today is our last Sunday on “Being the Church,” using the early Christian community in Ephesus as a case study. This month we have looked at four different snapshots of their first few years, using passages from Corinthians, Acts, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy. Today we fast forward 20-30 years and see what has become of the Ephesian Christians a generation later.

I’ll remind you that in each of the previous weeks we have seen the importance of holding together grace and truth. Paul urged the church leaders in Ephesus to grow in the grace that builds up, builds together, and builds the church out into its mission. He also challenged them to hold to the truth, to defend against conflict from outside and inside the church community. We saw these twin themes held up in the speech to the elders in Acts 20, in the letter to the Ephesians, and in the first letter to Timothy, the young pastor in Ephesus.

We will see today that the Ephesian Christians did heed at least part of Paul’s teaching, but apparently at the expense of another part of it. Let’s look at the words of Christ about Ephesus in the vision to John in Revelation. 

I Know You

After an impressive self-introduction as the One who moves in and holds the Church, Jesus speaks a word to the Church in Ephesus: “I know you…” “I know you; I know your deeds and your toil and your perseverance… you are some hard workers; I know your work, how hard you work, and how hard you work at working hard!”

What is it they work so hard at? They cannot tolerate evil men, and they test those who would teach falsely and find them to be false.

And then it is noted some more how hard they work at this and persevere in it.

It’s the Truth that they have latched on to, and they have made it the #1 thing for them. If you asked them what it means to be the Church, they would answer, “Truth!” They are diligent and careful and test all things against the Word and Spirit and they will not stand for any falsehood.

And they are right for doing so. They are right according to Scripture and they are right in keeping with what Paul urged their parents and grandparents to do a generation earlier.

Except… that’s not all he said. They have worked exceedingly hard at one-half of a whole. It’s like learning how to swing a tennis racquet but never using a ball. And they have practiced and practiced and practiced the swing over and over and have it down. But no ball; no game; no tennis.

And note that Jesus didn’t say, “Well done; you’ve really excelled at truth.” He simply says, “I know you, about your truth.” 

I Hold Against You

And Jesus continues, “But I have this against you… you have left your first love.” Now he doesn’t use the word ‘grace,’ which would have really made my point; but that is what’s missing. Let’s consider what “first love” might mean.

Broadly, it sounds like the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the first and greatest of the Commandments. This may well be what is in view.

More specifically, I believe it refers to the love they had “at first.” To understand that love I would return to Ephesians, the letter written to this same community a generation earlier. In chapter four, in the midst of the section about how the grace of God in Jesus Christ builds the church together in unity in order to build them out into mission, Paul writes this – listen for ‘love’:
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Did you hear it? “Walk worthy of your Christian calling… showing tolerance for one another in love.” I believe this, too, is the “first love” that the Ephesians have lost. They have so focused on truth that they have forgotten the grace that unites and binds in Christ. It’s interesting that the word “tolerate” is found here and in Revelation. They know how to not tolerate evil men, but they have forgotten how to show tolerance for one another in love.

I decided to chase down the underlying words there and it turns out there are two different words for “tolerate” being used. What they have persevered in doing is not supporting or “carrying” (perhaps even ‘enabling’) (bastasai) evil men. What they have forgotten is how to “endure” or “bear” (anechomai) one another for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. I don’t want to make too much of a difference; you can’t with the kind of range of meaning each word has. My point is that something has been lost in the Ephesian church, and it flows out of Christian grace and love. 


So when Jesus continues and says, “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first… or else!” I look to Acts 18-20 and to Ephesians to see what deeds they were doing at first, and I see this passage that talks about living out the faith with “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, and being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)

That is what has been lost and that is what Jesus says they must rediscover as their first love.

Hear me clearly; I am not saying that truth is not important. I think that’s why Jesus circles around and does hold up the rejection of the Nicolaitans, a pagan false teaching of the day that involved worship of idols. Truth is important. It is entirely possible to distort grace by forgetting the truth, so that one takes on a “do whatever you want” attitude, saying that “God will look the other way.” The truth is that God is a pure and holy God, piercingly righteous and true. But just as surely as people can forget truth and err, so they can forget grace and err, and the letter to the church in Ephesus shows just how grave that error can be.

Jesus doesn’t commend their diligent pursuit of truth and tell them just to loosen up a little. If they don’t remember and REPENT and rediscover that first love – that grace – then they do not have a place in His Kingdom.

This is a hard word for lovers of truth. Ironically, it is a word of truth for lovers of truth; and it is one filled with grace, for it summons us to repentance and rediscovery of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, to those who overcome cold truth alone, repent, and rediscover that first love, they will eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. 

For Those With Ears to Hear

I included a passage from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew to further explain what that full Gospel is and what it’s for. Listen again, too, to the context for Jesus’ words. He is talking about the future, as the end draws near. It’s the same kind of context for which Revelation is written.
Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:11-14)
Did you hear that? When lawlessness is increased, love will grow cold. But it is precisely that Christ-filled love that will cause Gospel truth to penetrate into a lawless world. Pure, cold truth will not do it alone, but faith lived out as love – grace embodied and incarnated in our lives. That is our testimony to the nations, to the culture around us.

The purpose of truth is not to “win” or feel morally superior, but to hold together with grace, in order to testify to the world about Jesus Christ. It is Good News worth sharing, not to be hoarded among the faithful or used to whip the unfaithful. Rather, the Gospel of grace and truth is to be lived out one conversation, one encounter, one life at a time in the places you live and move and interact.

I won’t connect all the dots for you today. You are smart enough to do that. I believe this teaching has great application for our witness as Presbyterians, as members of the Good Shepherd family, and as individual believers trying to live out this lighthouse-searchlight vision in big and small ways.

As Jesus said, “For those with ears to hear.” Amen.

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